By Doris Sullivan
NORTH CHARLESTON—As I sit here this morning with two friends planning the food menu and the work that goes along with it for the annual Fall Festival at Aldersgate United Methodist Church, I am reminded of my early days in this congregation.
It was in 1986 that I joined this wonderful group of Jesus-loving Christians. In those days, the sanctuary was full on Sundays with two different teenage acolytes lighting the candles each week for worship service from a group of about 25-30 teens, and a goodly number of smaller children and babies in attendance.
By the early 1990s, attendance began to decline. Our teens, mine included, went off to college or to work. Then, as they married, some moved from the local area or attended other churches. By the end of that decade, we had two teens and two or three smaller children on any given Sunday, unless there was a grandchild or two in attendance with Papa or Nana. By all accounts, we were looking very much like a dying church. As we entered the new millennium, no matter what action we undertook to make changes, we did not seem to improve.
Over these years we were blessed to have a number of very good ministers who were loved and respected as well, but even as our membership declined, any new increases in membership could not seem to keep up. Average attendance was less than half of what it had been in the early 1980s until about the end of the first decade of the new millennium.
Aldersgate has always enjoyed a very strong United Methodist Women, led by President Jean Doscher and many others before her. But somehow, something was missing in the church.
In 2008 a new church secretary, Ruth Holdridge, started a sack lunch ministry to feed the homeless who would knock on her office door looking for money for food. Instead, she was able to provide them with a sack lunch immediately. This program remains active today.
Then at the 2010 Annual Conference, we were blessed with the appointment of the Rev. Aaron Meadows for the next four years. A full time pastor, he was also an Air Force Reserve chaplain with the Joint Base Charleston. He brought with him great new ideas to expand the ministries of the church, beginning with the adopt-a-block mission. This group, comprising as many as two-dozen people including children, would walk the block around the church, knock on doors and greet the neighbors, introducing themselves and the church to any and all who needed us. Additionally, we would pick up the trash on the block, which in the beginning was a big job, and Pastor Aaron would bring his lawnmower and cut grass, as well. He introduced us to the Happy Birthday Jesus project, in which he asked us to consider giving half of our Christmas gift budget to this fund. Enough money was raised to fund a bathroom renovation for a disabled man on our block who was unable to get his wheelchair into the bathroom to get a shower.
Springing forth from all this were the clothes closet, staffed by Carol Poole and her volunteers, and later the food pantry.
Our membership began to grow, as did our children’s class and our teens.
During his tenure at Aldersgate, Pastor Aaron also led us in numerous Bible studies, organized the men’s prayer breakfast, led our youth on the Salkehatchie Summer Service teams, organized and led our members on mission trips with teams to Ecuador and introduced us to a Reverse Tithe Project. With the Reverse Tithe Project, all members were asked to select a small envelope from a basket. Money in the envelopes was to be brought back on Jesus’ birthday as a gift for Him, much like the parable of the “talents” in the 25th chapter of Matthew. Enough money was made from this project to fund the completion of a house on Johns Island for an elderly lady. Work on her home included completion of the porch, the roof and her kitchen floor, among other things.
Fast forward to 2014, and the conference appointed Pastor Aaron to the Wesley Foundation in the Charleston District (and that program, to my understanding, has also grown exponentially during these last two years under his leadership; he seems to be a youth magnet). They then appointed to Aldersgate—fresh from Duke University—the Rev. Erik Grayson.
We do not believe anyone better could have been sent to us to pick up the reins of Pastor Aaron. Pastor Erik expanded greatly on the programs already in place at Aldersgate. This gifted young man has jumped in from the beginning to keep programs moving forward and to add new ones.
Nearing the end of winter on a very cold night in 2014, we opened our building to allow people to come in out of the cold and at that point established a warming shelter using air mattresses and donated linens. We prepared a hot dinner, breakfast, and a sack lunch for the next afternoon to each person who came in from the cold. That mission has been expanded to include hot showers, now available to all people that desire one. A shower trailer has been secured and bath linens have been donated. All laundry is washed after each use by church member volunteers. This ministry has grown from three or four people that first night to as many as 40 people during this past winter. A church in North Carolina called to give us a number of bunk beds for use in our mission. All we had to do was come and get them. News of our mission work began spreading.
We have also opened our educational building to mission teams from all over the country for a place to stay while they work on the damages done to South Carolinian’s homes during the severe flooding in October 2015, housing as many as 70-80 people a week. These teams bless our congregation, as well.
The food pantry has been expanded from a placing a variety of donated food in bags for the hungry, about 20 bags a week, to partnering with and purchasing food from the Low Country Food Bank. The amount of food we can purchase from them has enabled us to give our recipients canned foods, as well as frozen meat, fresh vegetables, cereal, fruit and eggs. We are helping at least 75-80 families on a regular basis at this time. Our volunteers still donate margarine and eggs, as well as other foods.
In addition, Pastor Erik has created a disciple group that focuses more deeply on our spiritual growth. He has set forth a ministry focus for each year; “Disciples Who Make Disciples” is the 2016 ministry focus.
In 2015, he along with SPPRC added two positions to our staff: Tasha James, outreach coordinator, and Jessica Lassiter, children’s director. At that time, Aldersgate’s Kidsgate ministry was also established. These additions were necessary because of the growth we have been experiencing.
In addition, during the college year it is not unusual to see as many as a dozen or more young college students worshipping with us on Sundays. They also participate in our service with their music and in our mission work with their talents and hard work.
Our membership is a very diverse population as we have young, old and in between, as well as several different cultures with affluent, middleclass, working class and some of our homeless friends that attend our services regularly.
Pastor Erik has led us in spiritual growth studies and is currently leading us in the study, “When Helping Hurts.” We are partnering with other churches in our area to help with staffing the warming shelter and with preparing Thanksgiving dinners for hundreds of people. Last year we delivered 250 dinners on Thanksgiving morning. As we have continued to help those less fortunate people in our area, our members are becoming more spiritually hungry and, while feeding them physically, we are becoming more interested in feeding them and ourselves spiritually and developing a keen sense of community through the process.
This was evidenced last spring when one of our homeless people was killed in a hit-and-run on Remount Road just a few blocks from the church. Pastor Erik was very determined that he be given a memorial service at Aldersgate. This service was attended by as many church members as there were homeless people, during which anyone could speak a few words about the gentleman. The love and trust in the room that evening was evident to all in attendance. After, a meal was provided by our volunteers. Our members and our friends sat down together at a table for all.
Feeding us physically and spiritually together gives evidence to the work of God revitalizing a church. And all of this from a retired little wooden Army chapel that came down Remount Road in 1947 on the back of a semi.
By Doris Sullivan